Sunday 14 August 2011

Simply Irresistible

I’ve decided to do a couple of posts on writing styles. The first will be on clean, simple prose as mostly identified with writers like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver.

This kind of writing, where you don’t use long words or complicated sentence structures is easy to read and can build into a powerful way to tell a story. However, simple does not mean simplistic.

Simplicity in writing refers to the external structure, the language you use, the number of events you cover, how you structure the narrative. But that is not the most important aspect for the writer to establish. The writer needs to know about the internal structure, what the story is about.

As a reader this isn’t always clear. You can read a story, enjoy it, find many remarkable and interesting things within it, but have no idea what it’s really about. And as a reader you don’t need to know. But it is about something.

Sometimes the thing it’s about is subtle, or even impenetrable, but it’s always there. Because it’s most important function isn’t for the reader, it’s for the writer. Without an opinion or a viewpoint on your characters and what they do, you will end up with a very flat and pedestrian bunch of stuff that happened.

Many aspiring writers avoid thinking too much about these things. They either hope their subconscious will infuse their words with meaning (and sometimes it does), or they consider it unimportant and it’s just a story. Thing is, even if you read a story without having any idea of the deeper meaning behind it, your enjoyment is driven by that deeper meaning. It seeps into your brain even if you aren’t aware of it. Which is why if you try to emulate the style just using similar syntax and types of words it won’t have the same feeling.

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"


"How do you know it was nothing?"

"He has plenty of money."

This extract from Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ is very simple. The language, the characters, the scene are all very sparse and straightforward. But an actual simplistic version of this would be something like:

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"I don’t know."

The information being conveyed, that a guy is in a particular state of mind is communicated in both versions, but in Ernie’s version the way the waiter talks about the reason for suicide tells us about the man who tried to kill himself, the waiter, the concept of suicide, the difference in perception of happiness between the haves and the have-nots, and any number of other things.

Meanwhile my version is flat pedestrian exposition. 

How does he do that?  And in such a concise invisible way? 

The opinion he expresses through his characters or through his narrative is more than just objective information. What people do in an objective and well observed manner is not interesting to most people, any more than well-taken holiday photographs are. Some people of course are interested. If you went to the same place last year, or are planning to go next week, you might look closely at those sunsets and swimming pool photos. But for most people the life depicted therein hold no fascination. 

Because the point of story is not to tell you what happened, it’s to tell you what effect what happened had on the people it happened to and the consequences that followed. And if you don't include that, or if how they reacted and what it tells you about them is pretty much what you would expect, it’s not going to mean very much to a reader.

It’s not enough to list events in roughly the order they occurred, you have to have something to say about it. Saying it simply  makes what you have to say clearer, and makes it very, very clear if you’re not saying anything.

It can feel uncomfortable to pass judgements or make assertions about what things mean, especially if you're young or have just started writing, but that’s the beauty of having characters who can speak for you. The waiter’s views on spoilt rich people may or may not be Hemingway’s own, but they are distinct and clear. And provocative. And interesting.

It doesn't have to be blatant or preachy (in fact it definitely shouldn't be), but consider what happens in your story and what you think about those events, and write with that feeling in the back of your head. And then even the simplest prose will feel richer and more complete.

In the next post I’ll discuss more elaborate, sophisticated prose and how that technique can be used to its full potential.

Do you take time to consider your feelings about your characters and what they get up to? Or are you an impartial observer? What kind of writing style do you use?

If you found this post interesting please retweet it. Cheers.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I love reading your posts Moody. I recommended your blog to a blog buddy, Neil Vogler, who wanted some more blogs to follow (and added you to my blog role). You have such good advice.

Now on Ernest Hemmingway...he's probably my favorite writer period. I didn't necessarily get drawn to him for his stories but for his writing style. And the man point-blank, was a genius at the craft so there is some of that going on there as well. But Hemmingway admitted in interviews that he edited over and over and over again.

I strive to write like Hemmingway, I think.

mooderino said...

Thanks Michael.

I think whenever you are affected by some piece of writing it's more than just the way the words feel in your mouth or in your ear.

It's quite easy to express a simple sentiment in a simple way. It's not very easy to express a complicated sentiment in a simple way. That requires art, but even more than that, first and foremost, it requires you to envision a complicated sentiment.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What effect it has on the other characters - got it! I will pay more attention to that when I write.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Love this line: the point of story is not to tell you what happened, it’s to tell you what effect what happened had on the people

His writing might come across as simple, but it has an amazing depth.

Alleged Author said...

Sometimes I think I pay too much attention to the effect an event has on other characters (ignoring my MC). Sigh.

Weaver said...

I like your topic. I read an article some time ago that demonstrated dialogue between characters in a Hemingway book and the info dump the dialogue in a contemporary romance turned out to be. The difference was powerfully made. Hemingway's felt "real".

Sultan said...

One loves Hemmingway.

Charmaine Clancy said...

This makes me think of themes and how you should know what your message is before you write the story to tell it.
Great post.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Ted Cross said...

I go for spare prose, perhaps too spare at times, and I always wonder if I need to go through and simply add more description and depth in some places.

Karen Lange said...

Great food for thought! I am not sure where I fit. Need to look at the WIP and consider this. Have to work on it this afternoon as a matter of fact. Have a great week!

Deana said...

I would like to say I write like this and every page of my MS, but I doubt that is so. I do think it is the reaction that grabs me more than anything. I love Ernest Hemmingway's writing. I must say Mood, I really like yours as well:)

Jen said...

"the point of story is not to tell you what happened, it’s to tell you what effect what happened had on the people it happened to and the consequences that followed."

Yes, this absolutely. Well said. I want to remember this.

Sophia said...

I associate the Raymond Carver/Hemingway style with your blog ever since you wrote about unpacking verbs. The character cleaning the menu in your last post makes me think it might be a style you'd naturally lean towards in your reading/writing. Am I reading too much into that?

Your timing is pretty immaculate: I just finished Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and tomorrow I'll (hopefully) be picking up some of Hemingway's short stories. I didn't fully appreciate some of the first few Carver stories I read, but as I continued I must have settled into the mindset because it became easier to read between the lines. And of course, I ended up experimenting with the style myself.

Unknown said...

I tend to be a lean writer, and have in the past considered that a liability. But my thoughts on that are changing. Thanks for the post!

mooderino said...

@Alex-there'll be a written test at the end of the week.

@Lynda-absolutely, deceptively so.

@Alleged-a strong sense of POV helps.

@Donna-good dialogue that feels real and still slips in lots of info without the reader realising is pretty hard to pull off.

@Laoch-more than one I'd say.

@Charmaine-I think a lot of writers shy away from that, feels too presumptious. They tend to wing it and hope for the best.

mooderino said...

@Ted-I doubt it. What you probably need to do is connect the prose to the character. Make the POV stronger, and be aware of why you're saying what you're saying.

@Karen-cheers, and you.

@Deana-thank you. I hope one day you'll say that about an actual book I've written.

@Jen-for a post on simple prose I seemed to have said it in a pretty complicateed way. Will work on an easy to remember version.

@Sophia-I do tend towards that style, although I write comedy so whatever gets a laugh is how I approach it.

@Elle-no style has a greater liability than any other. If you have an issue in one, it will turn up in another. You just might be able to disguise it better under a heap of words. I'll be talking more about that in the next post.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Great post! Have you held a workshop? You should! I love the quick, snapping conversation and I instill a few of those throughout my books. I always consider my MCs feelings. Always--even the background ones. :)

Thanks for your helpful advice over at my blog! <3

Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

J.L. Campbell said...

Robert B. Parker has that simplistic style you talked about and I like that style of writing. Haven't mastered it yet though.

I think writers do manage to get their opinions in their work though it can be tricky. For myself, I try to express the opinion through the experiences of those in the society in which the novel is set.

Golden Eagle said...

Great points.

I'm not sure where my writing style falls--sometimes I think I do manage the less obvious meanings behind a character's words, but other times my writing is flat. It's definitely something I have to work on.

Stina said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series.

I know this is definitely not my style. Okay, maybe it's my style in the first draft, but not by design. ;)

Donna Shields said...

I love A Clean Well-Lighted Place.

mooderino said...

@Elizabeth-I think it would be fun to run a workshop, but at the moment it would jsut be anohter distraction from my own writing. Working on three different ideas at them moment and too much time on the web.

@JL-It's easy to lose a sense of voice if the langauge is too concise, or end up sounding like everyone else who uses that style. A unique voice is something most writers have, but translating it onto the page is less than straightforward.

@Golden-adding voice and depth to your writing is something I'mworking on for future blog posts.

@Stina-the next post in the series will be uplater today.

@Donna-he's not bad at writing, old Ern.

Many thanks for all the comments.

Unknown said...

I actually write like this. I don't use a lot of prose but keep things clean and simple. For me, it's often what's not said and done.

Lydia Kang said...

Another brilliant post, Mooderino~!

Anonymous said...

I think writing needs to match the characters. Since mine is action/adventure, many of my sentences are short and in rapid fire succession. Other characters demand longer, more fluid sentences, phrases strung together with commas and descriptive. Just depends on the character.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Excellent post. If I promise to take heed do I still have to take the written test?

Seriously, plenty of points to consider here. Thanks.

Ciara said...

Great post! I'm going to be following these posts on writing. I've got a lot to learn. No test though, please. :)

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